In truth, I didn't say a single word to them either. It's not because anyone was antisocial; it's because we were on a silent meditation retreat.
Since I first wrote about it in "Stalking Elijah," Jewish meditation has begun to take off in this country. There are now three major training programs for Jewish meditation teachers, sponsored by various organizations, including Metivta and Chochmat Ha Lev on the West Coast, and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat center in upstate New York. That last one is where I spent three full days sitting around doing nothing--except occasionally walking around doing nothing--all under the guidance of our teachers. The program was sponsored by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and open mainly to rabbis and Jewish community leaders. I guess I was the ringer.
There were also bell ringers. At precisely 5:45 a.m., I woke to the sound of a bell struck in the corridor, shook my dazed head, and prepared myself for the first meditation session. We assembled together in the main lodge at Elat Chayyim and assumed a sitting posture (aided by various meditation pillows, zafus
I liked the simplicity of our schedule. SITTING. WALKING. SITTING. WALKING. SITTING. LUNCH. And so on. The basic instruction was to pay attention, a task that proved much more difficult than it sounds. Pay attention to the body, to the breath, to your inability to pay attention. Pay attention to your thoughts, your daydreams, pay attention to your breath, the body, to each foot as it touches the ground, to the muscles in your legs as you walk. Pay attention to the taste of a piece of chocolate as it vaporizes on the tongue and spreads a subtle, slightly bitter cloud. (I guess I was paying attention that time.) Pay attention to the tiny muscles in your throat as you swallow water, and the slight constriction that follows just after the first big swallow. It is humbling and extraordinary to find, after five decades on the planet, that I have just now discovered what happens when I drink a glass of water.
Our teachers were two rabbis, Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Jeff Roth, and a vipassana meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, who describes herself in "That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist" as "a faithful Jew and a passionate Buddhist." She is also a storyteller who explains basic meditation practice, using incidents and encounters from everyday life.
The basic technique being taught I knew as vipassana meditation, a plain, direct form of Buddhist meditation practice that is native to Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, as well as to certain American meditation centers, including the Insight Meditation Society of Barre, Mass., and Spirit Rock on the West Coast. It so happens that the founders of these organizations are themselves Jews.
However, the meditation was not taught as vipassana, and there was no reference to Buddha, the Five Hindrances, or the Four Noble Truths. We simply sat and experienced the nature of each moment, to the extent that we could. In the morning, after the first "sit," there was an opportunity for "personal practice"--for most in the group that meant morning prayers. Several of the rabbis sat in tallises (prayer shawls) and tefillin (leather prayer amulets). Once a day, we had the opportunity to meet with our teachers one on one and share our experience or ask questions.
At the end, I found that many of the rabbis were deeply grateful for the experience. Several spoke of the powerful effect of the meditation practice on their davening, their prayer experience. One said the experience "stripped away some of the pretense and enabled me to stand with my soul before God."
Another recalled an instruction from Sylvia to "smile when you meditate," and added, "I'm going to smile when I daven." Another rabbi who had just completed a training program in Jewish meditation said that "sitting practice keeps me from avodah zarah, idol worship. Because the biggest avodah zorah for all of us who serve the Jewish community is human sacrifice. We sacrifice our lives to the community. When we do it to ourselves, we also expect it of others."
Another rabbi said simply, "I was feeling corroded. This is a way to chip away the corrosion. When I go back, I have two bat mitzvahs, a wedding, and funeral. Those folks are going to be very lucky, because I'll be overflowing."
Personally, I am fascinated with figuring out exactly how a practice that originates in Buddhist teaching fits into a Jewish religious life. I think about it all the time. But the rabbis didn't seem all that concerned with doctrinal dissonance, perhaps because the result of the experience was so clear. Sitting practice may or may not make you a better Jew, but it certainly makes you a better person, and that's a great start.